The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

The Orange Grove: A NovelThe Orange Grove: A Novel by Larry Tremblay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This little book (just 157 pages) is not for the faint of heart and is not a light read. It spans the life of Amed, who makes the horrible choice to swap places with his brother as a child, rather than to suicide bomb a target in revenge for the death of his grandparents. Sweeping across continents and across time periods in Amed’s life, this book feels like an epic journey of a tortured soul. He is constantly visited by the ghosts of his past and they stir Amed to flee rather than deal with his crisis of conscience. Not until the ending, does Tremblay provide a Deus ex Machina in the form of a tortured play where Amed can finally bare all in a giant cathartic finale.

I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine program. The translation is awkward feeling and the ending is too abrupt and yet I would put this book in the canon alongside Elie Wiesel, Night for the way it has perfectly captured the zeitgeist of our war-torn era and the human migration that is a result of it. Small but mighty, The Orange Grove spoke to me on many levels. In the secondary school classroom, it would ignite all sorts of entry-level conversation on difficult topics.

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Dan vs. Nature by Don Calame

Dan vs. NatureDan vs. Nature by Don Calame

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a light read but darker than Don Calame‘s previous works. Dan and his Mom’s fiance venture into the wilderness with a motley crue of tag-alongs. Dan is intent on breaking the fiance until he starts to really struggle with the wild as nature bites back. Underneath it all is Dan’s fear of change and the healthy mistrust of this new adult. It turns out the fiance is not all he appears as well except he has an unwavering concern for Dan’s well-being.

I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s selection for the White Pine program this year. I didn’t like it as much as Calame’s previous Swim the Fly in the same way that I didn’t appreciate Robin Williams trying to become a dramatic actor after being a comedy star. Perhaps Calame is morphing and this is his transition book. Regardless Dan Vs. Nature still suits the nature of male-focused fun in an otherwise morose world of young adult fiction.

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The frontierland of secondary school eLearning: Conquering fear and fostering courage

This week I’m attending the inaugural CANeLearn symposium in Vancouver, BC.  The session I’m presenting is a collaborative action research project that we had funded by the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.
The session will show you the results so far of our action research project in improving student motivation. Through teaching strategies for increasing student curiosity, control, collaboration, scaffolded challenges and recognition we are conquering fear and fostering courage in the frontierland of secondary school elearning. You will gain full access to our strategies as we harvest your ideas for further exploration and testing.

Interview with John Vaillant

I had such a treat this week to interview author John Vaillant about the book that we are currently reading in TVO’s TeachOntario. The questions were developed in conjunction with the book club’s participants.

Usually when I have interviewed people in the past, I have simply used Google Hangouts on Air and hit record.  This time I needed to adapt to the new Livestream option inside YouTube (which is just like Google Hangouts on Air but hidden) and I had the marvelous Matthew O’Mara to school me on a few production tips.  I hope you’ll enjoy the interview and to be encouraged to pick up this timely and treacherous adventure.  For my review of this book, please go to The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

The Magicians Trilogy Boxed SetThe Magicians Trilogy Boxed Set by Lev Grossman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do you remember how you felt at the end of the Harry Potter books…you couldn’t believe it was all over? Lev Grossman’s world renderings have left me feeling like I have been to another world and back again. Truthfully, I didn’t start enjoying Harry Potter as an adult until we got to #3 The Prisoner of Azkaban and things took a turn to the darker. Well, Grossman starts you with that delicious darkness right away by following the angsty college-age characters into the pits of their binge-drinking, malaise, and their general feelings of invincibility. It took me awhile to get Quentin Coldwater, our protagonist, as he begins as such an unlikeable character: weak, needy, low self-esteem and perpetually whinging. Hanging in there with Quentin means you get to enjoy Grossman’s foils: Julia, Eliot, Alice, Janet, Penny and Plum. Each of his friends is suprisingly complex and I looked forward to every encounter. Grossman isn’t gentle with his readers…he expects you to have a well-versed lexicon of pop culture and regularly twists icons of the fantasy world to his will. This is a reader’s book. There may even be an encyclopedia on The Magicians’ Lore and Easter Eggs out there somewhere….and if not then someone needs to conjure one. Of course I loved the Neitherlands’ library most and I’d like to spend some real time there if I just had the right button.

I think Grossman may be ahead of his time, combining this almost dystopian and back again version of the typical fantasy quest with very real struggles with mental health themes, the continuous search for identity and enough modern slang to quickly date this book. I will recommend it to everyone but I’m not sure it will suit everyone’s taste as it breaks all sorts of archetypal rules. And readers like their archetypes.

On a side note: I am not particularly enjoying the casting of Quentin Coldwater in the TV series and actually my favourite actor is the one playing Penny, who is grossly underused in Grossman’s The Magicians. Maybe Mr. Grossman will reward my loyalty by writing a spin-off series just about Penny? Or Plum…she’s awesome too.

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Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships (Baltimore, #1)Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s dark and dingy but it has this throwback, homage feeling to it that really appealed to my sense of design. The story uses many archetypes and predictable twists and turns as there is a plague, and zombie-esque creatures and vampires, but really our hunter is fighting evil, and that never really goes out of style, does it? My favourite part is when the pretty sidekick (who just can’t seem to keep her blouse on her shoulders) escapes the onslaught of the zombies by hiding inside a submarine full of corpses. I’ll have to see what my secondary school readers think of it as they are always craving more brains….errr, zombies. More zombies! More zombies!

Baltimore reminds me more of something about the same age as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde then a modern day graphic novel. If you like fog and death, you’re going to love it.

Image result for baltimore the plague ships

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Why you should read The Jaguar’s Children right now

In 2015 award-winning author John Vaillant released his first novel “The Jaguar’s Children” saying that the issues of Mexico’s plight are just too complex to do justice in a non-fiction book.  The book cover shows a wall….the same wall that everyone is talking about in 2017.


It’s this wall that our main characters Hector and Cesar must overcome but the greater story is in the reasons that have pushed Hector and Cesar to make this choice. For one, their home region of Mexico, Oaxaca, has been overtaken by corporate farming and the heritage strain of Oaxaca’s indigenous corn is being bioengineered out of existence.  The corn is an underlying metaphor that pervades the novel as Hector’s own Zapotec heritage is threatened by modernisation and his decision to leave Mexico altogether.  Most of the novel takes place inside the water truck which conceals the boys’ identities but becomes their prison as it breaks down in the hot desert sun.  In dealing with this real conflict, Hector takes Cesar’s phone and tries to reach out for help.  Timely and gripping, The Jaguar’s Children will leave you with questions about our own responsibilities as global citizens and who gains most from economic policy.

Join me in TeachOntario for a great discussion beginning February 21, 2017. TeachOntario is an open space for educators and the public alike. This is our first fiction collaboration with the Ontario School Library Association and we’ve chosen The Jaguar’s Children because it is a) a wicked good book and b) because it was nominated for an Evergreen award by the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading program.  The book club is inside the Explore section of TeachOntario as we are inviting the public to join in so please bring a friend.

To register for the book club, go here:

The inauguration in my school library learning commons

“Our approach to freedom need not be identical, but it must be intersectional and inclusive.” – Janet Mock, writer, TV host, transgender rights activist

Today I feel compelled to put into words my choice to broadcast the inauguration of the 45th U.S. President in my school library yesterday.

Living on the other side of the U.S. border has its challenges for a small town teacher-librarian.  While we dance around the idea of Canadian identity and what that means when our culture is represented, Canadian publishers in all media forms are still driven by American markets and American values.  So populating a library with well-loved material of  CanCon isn’t always what pleases the staff and students because we’ve been  gorging ourselves on the fire hose of American content.  But the direction of Trump’s politics is certainly affecting my library just 150 km from our border.  It is our mandate to give equal weight to the voices in my school respectfully, responsibly and compassionately.

When my principal put forward the idea of livestreaming the inauguration in our school, I was all for it from the beginning.  Generally, when I’m faced with a situation that feels precarious in the library I have to resist that flight feeling and instead push through.  I gather my community for support and so we put it to the staff that we were going to livestream the inauguration throughout the halls and in the learning commons.  We received the full spectrum of reactions…some who thought it was important and some who thought it was giving support to the wrong values. After some discussion back and forth we decided to show it in the library only and I think now it was the right decision because of the wide range of opinions and emotions in the school around this momentous occasion.   The dilemma seemed to be whether or not we should be giving hateful politics any space at all in our school community. Better to have staff on hand and nearby for students who are wrestling with the same strong emotions we’re having. I side with providing information openly first and then we can work through our disparate reactions together.  That’s my job and it gets me out of bed every morning.

We didn’t make any announcements at all, but I started to set up about an hour before Trump’s speech and the students just started pouring in. We have simply not had the technology before now to do this before and it was surprisingly easy.  I put up a question trying to focus on a critical thinking aspect of whatever we were about to see.  “What words does he use to persuade the audience?”  That was as neutral as I could manage.   I also made sure that the students knew they didn’t have to stay and that there was a quieter area in the lower library.  As the speech began I estimate that we had 150 students and 7 staff members watching.  We spoke quietly with the students asking what they thought of the words being used.  The end of his speech really enflamed some passionate responses but everyone was in control and respectful.  Just before the end of lunch, the videostream ended.

It inspired wonder!  Curiosity!  I heard:

“I wonder why they chose January 20th to begin his presidency?”

“I wonder how Trump’s changes will affect our economic relationship with the U.S.?”

“Is that racist?” “Are those all of Trump’s children?”  “Are there any black people in the audience?

I know it was the right thing to do.  This is why civic places exist in democracy.  It may be difficult to work through the issues we all feel are most important, but on my watch my library will continue to be a place where issues and voices can co-exist.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audre Lorde, African American writer, feminist, womanist, lesbian, and civil rights activist

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

They Left Us Everything: A MemoirThey Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first became interested in Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything as it has won the Ontario Library Association’s 2016 Evergreen award for best in Canadian adult fiction. This book is my surprise read of the year. Aging parents and all their stuff? The topic doesn’t really sell itself, does it? But then I engaged with Plum’s story as it speaks to the changing nature of family dynamics. Her family is challenged by her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, her brother’s cancer and the general decline of her mother. As her parents age and pass away, she is left with a monument to their time on Earth that seems psychologically insurmountable to deal with. Each item that Plum touches resonates with a history sometimes obvious but more likely it’s true meaning isn’t revealed until Plum has a series of serendipitous moments. This book spans the time it took Plum to deal with each item, the family disagreements about how to deal, and the time of putting it all to rest. This book is filled with the things that we think and don’t say and in joining Plum in her memoir, I feel better about the future challenges in my own life. It is descriptive and concise, and a true tribute to family dysfunction in all its glories. If I could, I’d buy a copy for each family member with a card attached that says “Fair warning.”

As I was searching, I found this article about the home itself filled with marvellous descriptive pictures that match the ones in my head:

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount CharThe Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a librarian, I rarely buy books anymore just for me but every now and then one leaps out at me, circulates through my family, and then makes its new home in my library where I recommend it to my secondary school readers. The Library at Mount Char reminds me of….American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric….with the style of Tom Robbins in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Is it just me or is there an emerging genre of gods living among us?

I can barely tell you about the book without spoilers but let me say something about the most enticing bits ….the library is THE library containing all the knowledge in the world (including resurrections, for example. …there us unspeakable violence and the threat of an approaching apocalypse and our antihero Carolyn has to learn all this while living with her 11 adopted brothers and sisters who are each mastering their own catalogue and experimenting on each other. It takes sibling pranks to a whole new level.

I will recommend this book to any student in my library who I suspect lives a double-life or has their sights on anarchy.

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#BIT16Reads Presentation: Building school cultures that support the integration of technology

The full presentation is here:

Our live results are here:

Made with Padlet

Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill

Any Known BloodAny Known Blood by Lawrence Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t help but say that I was hoping that this book would be the perfect addition to my secondary school library collection because once again Lawrence Hill tackles challenging topics of race and discrimination. In Any Known Blood Hill spends a devoted part of his novel to how being of mixed race makes people ostracized in all camps …not black enough, not white enough. Mixed race faces are the faces of young Canada and I see my students struggle with feeling comfortable in their own skin every day. The lineage of the Langston Cane men that forms the novel is fascinating to see the choices they’ve made through history and I’m a devotee of the multi-generational plot structures (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China One Hundred Years of Solitude A Fine Balance). However, the amount of sexuality in this book makes me uncomfortable as a public educator in recommending it to my young readers….which is too bad.

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The Best Bits of #BIT16Reads

Trying to grow and sustain a book club over 5 months has been a real experiment.  It all culminates in the biggest and best conference on educational technology in Ontario (maybe Canada!) which is the Bring IT Together conference.  If you’ve never been before, you’ll find a whole bunch of people who want to enable you to go to your next level.  My favourite day is the first one where we get to play in Minds on Media or work deeply in a 1/2 day workshop.  That’s where I’ll be on day 1…learning!

On Thursday November 10th we will finally meet face-to-face at the #BIT16Reads Book Club Breakfast →7:30 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. in the Peller Estates Ballroom A. Our Thursday morning begins with our #BIT16 Reads book club breakfast, right before the conference’s opening keynote speaker, provided through a partnership with TeachOntario and the Ontario School Library Association and facilitated by moi.  Looking forward to seeing you for breakfast and a byte!  We will have discussions through Twitter so make sure to use and follow the hashtag #BIT16Reads.  We will reveal one of the books for next year’s book club and there will be giveaways for everyone who attends.

On Friday November 11th at 10 a.m. in Peller Estates Ballroom D I will present

#BIT16Reads: Cultures that support tech integration in education

I encourage you to spend some time with me and open up some of the issues we encountered in our reading this year. I began this year’s book club asking the question: How can schools develop cultures that facilitate the integration of educational technology? Each of the 5 books we read this year offer insights into these answers.  Through research and leadership, critical thinking, learning strategies and education reform I think we have the power to begin and sustain this transformation.

Please drop me a line here or on Twitter where I’m @banana29 and let me know when we’ll meet up at #BIT16.  Personally, I can’t wait.


Best BITs: Preventing discrimination in schools

This week I’ve been focused on the overall message when reading pages 98 to 113 about how discrimination is embedded in the structures of our schools. I feel very protective of public education and how it needs to be accessible to all who attend.  Specifically, authors Zac Chase and Chris Lehmann highlight the barriers to learning that are perpetuated against race, sexual orientation and ability.

The authors go so far as to say that we need to be deliberately anti-racist; that we need to be deliberately inclusive in our heteronormative culture; and to create spaces for all student voices to be heard.

Are policies, procedures and structures the only place in our schools where we allow discrimination to persist?  Can you see areas in your school that need improvement?  Have you made any changes that have improved access for all student voices?

Last year in #BIT15Reads, we read a book by educator Jose Vilson that really touched me called: This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by Jose Vilson — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists It’s just a really moving book as Jose writes passionately (like you Leah), and from a very raw place.  His blog is also amazing: The Jose Vilson | Educator – Writer – Activist – Father

Leah Kearney says: “Anti-discriminatory policies need to be in place to disrupt long-standing bias towards marginalized and racialized members that occur throughout our school systems, law enforcement systems and justice systems. We know that teenage males of colour seem to be on the receiving end of disciplinary measure much more than their counterparts, this is clearly evident in the data. But, what surprises people is that this bias occurs towards our earliest learners as well. Last month a study was released by the Yale Child Study Centre that revealed youngsters in child-care settings are also being regarded differently depending on their ethnicity and gender. “Implicit bias is like the wind — you can’t see it, but you can sure see its effects,” said Yale’s Walter Gilliam, an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology and the lead researcher on the study. Gilliam said the findings show that implicit biases “do not begin with black men and police. They begin with young black boys and their preschool teachers — if not earlier.” Studies like this demand that we pay attention to our own biases and take measures to address them. Here is a link to a good article on the study;

Study: Teachers’ ‘implicit bias’ starts in preschool

Kate Johnson-McGregor says: “Certainly the issue of race and culture in our schools is at the forefront right now with the Truth and Reconciliation movement. I have noticed a significant increase in students looking for literature written by indigenous authors this fall – so much so that I’ve been researching and have just purchased two dozen books (fiction and non) to help serve the demand. So – I would say that as much as I strive to make my school library learning commons an inclusive space, perhaps I had not been as sensitive as I could have been to the FNMI literature collection. All school programs are limited by budget constraints and curriculum demands – and I suppose that it all comes down to timing. I have tried to keep current (I bought the TRC publications last fall when they were released for our non-fiction collection) and there is a certain amount of “supply and demand” to be considered. My goal is to be responsive to cultural, social and political shifts, as the students need me to be. So now is the time to invest in indigenous authors. And teaching in a high school on the edge of Six Nations, it is wonderful to see my students excited about seeing themselves and their culture reflected in literature.”


Best BITs: Wrestling with math in School 2.0

I wrestle with math.  There was a time when I was almost deemed gifted in math in grade 7 and then my grade 8 teacher proposed the concept of integers and it just blew my mind apart.  Later in grade 10 there was that time when I skipped math 23 times and obviously missed a lot of content.  When my good friend Darrin helped me scrape by in grade 11 with a 57%, I closed the door on my studies in math forever.  Yet as an adult I can do my own taxes, and I’m able to keep track in my gradebook, and generally function in my day-to-day living…or so I thought until my son started coming home with math homework.  Max is in grade 7 and is working through grade 4 work.  But having few skills and little passion for the topic, we struggle to do 2 – 3 hours per week of supplementary work.  All of Max’s ambitions are in the sciences and I just know that his options will be limited if we can’t get these math skills upgraded.

Looking around my school I see math being taught in pretty much the same way that I learned it.  Students are taught a new skill or concept over time with the use of a textbook and lots of questions.  Some innovative teachers give each student a whiteboard in order to give immediate feedback.  Fewer teachers use tangibles in a secondary classroom.  The entire department is working towards developing deeper understanding of math concepts in their professional development.  But it continues to distress me that the Ontario math curriculum hasn’t been updated since 2005.

Lehmann and Chase suggest that we need to adopt a similar attitude to Conrad Wolfram:

If it is true that math is part of so many of human innovations, then why do we continue to teach math in isolation rather than as part of other disciplines?  Do you see this changing in your school?  How would you like to see math education change in the future?

Kristy Luker countered my experience with her insight:

I am not sure if I can adequately talk about how Math should be taught when I excelled at Math in school. The methods used worked for me, but I do agree that there is a huge disconnect between what is taught and how we use Math in our everyday lives. In life we often stumble upon the Math, and I agree with Wolfram that it doesn’t present itself as a calculation. We have proceeded in education with the belief that if we focus on teaching children how to solve equations then when presented with problems they will be able to solve them. Unfortunately, students struggle to see what the computation question is in a problem that they need to calculate in the first place. I agree that focusing on critical thinking and extracting the Math out of real life scenarios would help bridge this gap.

We have been sewing a lot lately at our Enrichment & Innovation Centre. We are currently linking it to Science and Social Studies, but I can really see that as students get comfortable with sewing the rich Math that will immerse. The Math will become practical, necessary and real for the students. Fake problems can only get you so far. I can also see the 3D printer and the design programs that can be used with them leading to real life, hands on Math. You should have seen me trying to follow a bread recipe when I didn’t have all the right measuring cups! I was trying to find equivalent fractions! Or how about coding! Gosh the algebraic thinking that goes into creating loops!

Unfortunately, similar to the problems presented for Inquiry teaching, educators need to be comfortable with the notion that not all students may be learning the same thing at the same time. We get hung up on covering curriculum and panic about assessment. We need to discuss ways of tracking student achievement and be provided with the time to truly digest our curriculum. I have said  over and over that one of the reasons that I am comfortable using Inquiry is that I know my curriculum. I see the learning that is happening and understand where it fits on a continuum of learning in order to help create a next step with a student.

I think as educators we have to find a balance between what we know is best pedagogy and what we can manage and handle based on the size of our current classrooms. These leads me to wondering how much changing the student to teacher ratio would and could affect our practices? Many of the methods we use in our classrooms exist as managing techniques. We do things to keep things neat, tidy and predictable. But learning isn’t those things. Learning is MESSY!

Math does need to infiltrate all disciplines to be authentic. It would be best not taught in isolation. Embed it into art, dance, science, social studies etc. . . make it real by pondering real numbers and real questions.”

Kristy and I are both looking forward to your responses.